Saturday, November 7, 2009

Study a Language -- Learn a Language

Recently, I have been re-examining statements and observations that have been made over the ages about teaching, studying and learning languages. Some come from prefaces to old textbooks, some from the early 1800s and another from the late 1700s; others from classical authors, poets, as well as Medieval and Renaissance philosophers. This blog post is about how to improve vocabulary acquisition -- and leverage it to launch into grammar.

First, it is important to point out that teaching, studying and learning are all very different endeavors. Aquinas, for instance, examines from many angles the question of whether one person can teach another person anything. That he even asks the question strongly suggests that he, as a teacher, had his doubts! Communicating knowledge is what teaching is about, but how that is done is the question. And the type of knowledge, the learner, the circumstance and so forth will greatly impact the answer to that question. To paraphrase Aquinas' conclusion in part, he observes that teachers can only be expected to organize the information and communicate it to their pupils in a language and at a level that they can be reasonably expected to grasp.

A few centuries after Aquinas, another great and influential teacher of Latin came along. His name was Comenius. Professor Pieter Loonen has written a very informative article on Comenius. One of the lessons to be derived from Dr. Loonen's article has to do with how to learn vocabulary, or teach it. Employing the senses, at least one of them, is important. Comenius would have liked picture dictionaries. He also would have approved of having students put new words to use as soon as possible, in meaningful or at least memorable sentences. He would probably not have liked flash cards that only have a word on each side.

Drawing on Comenius, Bacon, Aquinas, treatises on the art of memory, and my own experience, I have one suggestion that it powerful because it harnesses the power of the imagination and is 100% portable!

One really only knows what can be recalled and used. Where language mastery is concerned, if it has to be looked up, it hasn't been learned. This fact suggests that students should not rely too much or for too long on flashcards or even picture dictionaries.

So, I propose a method of creating the picture dictionaries in your head.

I call this method the Solar System Model. It is anchored on nouns since, as was observed by Bacon (and quoted by Loonen), knowledge begins with the proper naming of things:

Let's say you need to learn vocabulary about school. Imagine a book, floating in space. Imagine that it is the name of a planet circling another, larger visual image, in this case, a school building. This school building is the sun in this solar system that deals with school -- a main theme word. Around this sun revolve planets of various sizes: the book we have just imagined, a chair, a table, a pencil, and as many objects one expects to be related to school.

Next, around each of these planets, like moons, revolve the verbs that are most commonly associated with each noun. Around the planet named book, then, revolve the moons named to read, to open, to close, to check out and so forth. Around the planet named pencil will revolve the moons named to write, to erase, to sharpen and to break.

Each major theme, such as school, shopping, food, travel, clothes, etc., becomes a sun at the center of its own solar system.

As students build their imaginary solar systems with a thematic sun at each center, populating them with planets and moons, they will add other features, beginning with how to make the nouns plural, what articles to use with them and article-noun-adjective agreement in gender and number. They'll also add subject-verb agreement as they also expand on the verbs and learn to conjugate them.

Students will find that some solar systems are naturally related to other solar systems and can relate them by visualizing them close to each other in some way. The point is: imagination and visualization are brought into play, creatively and deliberately, to increase memory and thus the ability to recall what one needs when one needs it.

By using this Solar System Model, students will naturally expand from naming things to saying something about them, gradually expanding their knowledge and ability to properly apply the rules of grammar.

1 comment:

Ms Blondie Knits said...

Interesting post and idea that will apply to some language learners. When you start talking "science" terms to me, I get scared, but I know that this will really appeal to a lot of kids and make it more fun for them.

This is kind of a weird thing to tell you, but I knit a lot, and in one of my millions of books this author is talking about how instead of writing down what row you are in (if you are following, say, a 10-row pattern), you are to visualize an object rather than the row number, and by following in your head the related visual objects assigned to each row, it's less easy to forget where you are in the pattern. Your post kind of reminded me of that in a much more scientific way!

We were talking about the racionalistas vs. the ambientalistas in one of my classes the other day -- just kind of a mini intro to applied linguistics -- and it's all so amazing how language is learned and assimilated -- also how the different learning styles really come in to play! I guess a teacher just needs to make sure to cover all the bases to get to as many people as possible!

Anyway, thanks for some food for thought today!